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Iceland Trails Other Nordic Countries in LGBTQ Rights

Iceland often places near the top in various gender equality rankings. But when it comes to laws and rights for LGBTQ persons, a European ranking shows that the nation is trailing its Nordic neighbours.

The LGBTQ organisation ILGA Europe has ranked the European countries based on laws and policies in various areas with a direct impact on the human rights of LGBTQ persons. Only one Nordic country, Norway, can be found in the top portion of the list, in second place after Malta. Finland and Denmark place 7th and 8th, and Sweden and Iceland 12th and 16th. Daníel E. Arnarsson, head of Icelandic LGBTQ organisation Samtökin ’78, is not surprised.

‘Our politicians think we are so progressive they have forgotten to reform our laws. Not much has happened in the last 10 years when it comes to LGBTQ rights in Iceland,’ he says.

In contrast to the other Nordic countries, Iceland does not have a law against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

‘Our constitution does say that all people have equal value, but this very general protection is insufficient in a court situation. We want to see explicit protection against workplace discrimination of LGBTQ persons.’

Iceland also lacks protection of LGBTQ persons in the national hate crime legislation, which means that an offence cannot be considered more serious if somebody is victimised due to sexual orientation or gender identity. Asylum issues is another area where Iceland ranks poorly. According to Arnarsson, persecution due to sexual orientation or gender identity is not an acceptable ground for asylum in the present asylum legislation. He feels that although Icelandic policymakers have a positive attitude to LGBTQ issues, there is little concrete action. Another problem is that Iceland’s LGBTQ organisation is underfunded.

‘We don’t have enough resources to advance the development and do everything we want. Right now we have only two employees, and most of our time is spent disseminating information at schools and hosting support groups.’

Norway’s New Gender Recognition Law Is Effective

Norway ranks higher than any other Nordic country and also significantly higher than in the previous Rainbow Europe ranking. This can partly be attributed to the country’s new gender recognition law, adopted in 2016. In the past, people who wanted to change their legal gender first had to be surgically sterilised and medically diagnosed as transsexual. The new law has removed these requirements. Norway is the fourth European country that has adopted a gender recognition legislation that is based on each individual’s right to self-determination.

‘This is a law that we have fought long and hard for. It is an important milestone for our organisation,’ says Ingvild Endestad, chair of Norway’s largest LGBTQ organisation, the National Association for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender People – FRI.

According to Endestad, the law gives trans persons the right to decide over their own bodies and gender identity. It also enables trans persons to become parents, as the sterilisation requirement no longer applies.

‘The law allows for sex reassignment therapy to enable a person to become one of the two genders. However, Norway still does not have a third gender category for those who don’t identify themselves as a man or a woman. That’s an issue we will continue to work on.’

Norway has had established LGBTQ organisations in place since the 1950s. FRI receives both state and municipal funding for its operations. Endestad believes that these are important preconditions for the ability to achieve change. At the same time, she wants to point out that the Rainbow Europe ranking does not give the whole truth.

‘The ranking shows how far we have come with laws and policies, but not how these are being implemented in real life, and it doesn’t say anything about general attitudes. Norwegian society remains characterised by the hetero- and cis norms. We need to change these attitudes and try to increase the tolerance in society.’

Strong LGBTQ Movement in Malta

Malta tops the ranking, which includes 49 different countries. This may seem unexpected, considering that the island nation prohibits abortions and is generally seen as conservative when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights. According to Emma Cassidy from ILGA-Europe, one explanation is that Malta benefits from a strong LGBTQ movement that has gained the respect of policymakers.

‘This collaboration has been a clear success factor in Malta. It has led to rapid legislative changes,’ she says.

Malta, too, has passed a progressive gender recognition law, which among other things prohibits the performance of unwanted medical procedures on intersex persons. Intersex persons are often physically altered as children to make them fit into the binary gender model. This is standard procedure in several Nordic countries, based on the assessment of a doctor, even if the interventions are not wanted or medically justified.

Cassidy says that the Nordic countries were forerunners in the LGBTQ field ten years ago. But the launching of new reforms has slowed down since then.

‘At this point, some laws need to be updated. The Nordic countries shouldn’t define themselves based on past achievements,’ says Cassidy.

Updated 10 December 2019